OPENING WEDNESDAY AT A THEATER OR DRIVE-IN NEAR YOU: THE SHADOW CINEMA OF THE AMERICAN ‘70s by Charles Taylor (Bloomsbury)
Taylor opens a door to one of the richest periods of American filmmaking—not just the 70s but the “disreputable” 70s. “Most of the movies in this book did what they set out to do: make money fast,” he writes in his introduction. “Some are good, solid pieces of moviemaking, and some are shrewdly put-together junk. Outsized claims for their greatness would only falsify their grungy, visceral appeal. But I believe these movies do share something with eth A-list pictures of their time, something almost entirely missing in today’s commercial American cinema. In the 70s’s the gritty and somewhat pessimistic nature that has always been characteristic of B movies translated into a refusal to keep bad things from happening to good character, a resistance to handing out easy, happy endings. That’s why it’s possible to watch these movies now—despite the pulpiness, despite the obvious lashings or nudity and violence to satisfy the exploitation crowd—and feel as if you’re being treated like an adult.” Among the films he analyzes: Vanishing Point, Two-Lane Blacktop, Foxy Brown, Ulzana’s Raid, Citizens Band, and Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia. Having just watched Prime Cut, which holds up quite well, I enjoyed having Taylor explain how the film reflected its era in ways that might not be obvious to someone who wasn’t around at the time. He is an excellent writer with a broad knowledge of cinema and this is an important book.
TWO CHEERS FOR HOLLYWOOD: JOSEPH McBRIDE ON MOVIES (Hightower Press) by Joseph McBride
Joe McBride doesn’t mind ruffling feathers, nor is he afraid to put in the time and effort to research challenging topics like the quixotic John Ford and the often-inscrutable Orson Welles (both of whom were subjects of full-length books he wrote years ago). This weighty volume compiles a wide range of McBride’s essays and interviews, many of which were new to me. I was especially taken with his profiles of blacklisted screenwriter Michael Wilson and the unheralded Frank S. Nugent, who segued from being a film critic for The New York Times to becoming John Ford’s primary screenwriter. He offers notes on The Coen Brothers, interviews Peter O’Toole, and turns a keen eye on Welles’ recently-rediscovered footage for the play Too Much Johnson. I was just going to browse this volume but found myself reading one piece, then another, and then another. McBride has made major contributions to film scholarship for decades and this is a welcome compendium of his work.
FLICKERING TREASURES: REDISCOVERING BALTIMORE’S FORGOTTEN MOVIE THEATERS by Amy Davis; foreword by Barry Levinson (Johns Hopkins University Press)
Other books have celebrated the golden age of movie palaces and documented their demise. As a photographer who lives in Baltimore, Davis was more interested in capturing the qualities that made each theater in her city special, to a historian looking backward and to its patrons during its heyday. She conducted 300 interviews with ordinary people who attended these bijoux as well as managers and employees. The results are poignant, to say the least. Davis writes, “This is not a conventional ‘then and now’ album, wedded to the formula of matching old and new photographs taken from the same vantage point. Many of the early photos I discovered inspired my photographic approach, but capturing the character of each theater and its streetscape from the best vantage point available was more essential than finding a duplicate view. I sought a dialogue with the past, not its replication.” She has succeeded one hundred percent: Flickering Treasures is not only a collection of beautiful and evocative photos, but a sociological journey through 20th century America. Having Baltimore-bred filmmaker Barry Levinson contribute a foreword is icing on the cake.
IT’S ALIVE: CLASSIC HORROR AND SCI-FI POSTERS FROM THE KIRK HAMMETT COLLECTION Edited by Daniel Finamore (Peabody Essex Museum/Skira Rizzoli)
Based on a recent museum exhibition in Massachusetts, this handsomely designed book features emblematic posters for great genre films as well as rare and unusual images from around the world. As the lead guitarist for Metallica, Kirk Hammett has been able to purchase high-ticket posters over many years’ time, and the results are truly worthy of a museum show. Even if you’ve seen them before, it’s dazzling to gaze upon original artwork for Frankenstein, Dracula, The Invisible Man, and such later sci-fi pictures as The Crawling Eye, The Angry Red Planet, and Alien. I loved revisiting them all. Beautifully laid out and printed on heavy paper stock, this volume also includes essays by Steve Almond, Joseph Ledoux, and editor Finamore.
LITTLE SHOPPE OF HORRORS #38: FRANKENSTEIN—THE TRUE STORY (Little Shoppe of Horrors)
I normally don’t review magazines here but this special issue of Richard Klemensen’s periodical is so ambitious and thorough that it definitely deserves mention. Guest editor Sam Irvin has left no stone unturned in documenting the 1973 TV movie Frankenstein: The True Story, directed by Jack Smight, produced by Hunt Stromberg, Jr., written by Christopher Isherwood and Don Bachardy, and starring Michael Sarrazin, Leonard Whiting, David McCallum, Nicola Pagett, Michael Wilding, Agnes Moorehead, Ralph Richardson, and John Gielgud, among others. The only word to describe this jam-packed issue is “exhaustive.” There are candid interviews, rare photos, background pieces, and even an introduction by Anne Rice. For more information, click HERE.
BACKWARDS & IN HEELS: THE PAST, PRESENT AND FUTURE OF WOMEN WORKING IN FILM by Alicia Malone (Mango Publishing)
Film reporter and television personality Alicia Malone has produced a useful primer about women’s roles in the movie industry. It should serve as an ideal introduction for readers who haven’t explored the subject before. Malone spotlights such pioneers as Alice Guy Blaché and Lois Weber, Hattie McDaniel and Ida Lupino, right up to the present day. What sets the book apart from other texts is its survey of the contemporary scene, including interviews with working editors, cinematographers, directors, actors, and executives including Geena Davis, Ava DuVernay, Denise di Novi, Octavia Spencer, and Nicole Perlman, to name just a few. By setting her sights toward the future—while acknowledging the past—Malone gives the reader (especially a young, female reader) positive indications that change is in the air and women may finally get the opportunities they have always deserved—and once had in the silent film era.
NOTHING SACRED: THE CINEMA OF WILLIAM WELLMAN (Men With Wings Press) is now available for pre-order. Authors Frank Thompson and John Andrew Gallagher have spent decades working on this magnum opus, which will run 700 pages in an oversized format and include some 1,000 images, many of them published for the first time. To learn more, through a promotional video, and order your copy, click HERE.
The following books may not fit into the film category but I want to spread the word about them:
MORT SAHL: LAST MAN STANDING by James Curtis (University Press of Mississippi)
If you know Curtis’ previous books on James Whale, Spencer Tracy, and W.C. Fields, you know he is one of the best biographers working today. His study of groundbreaking stand-up comic Mort Sahl is in the same league as his other bios, with the notable exception that this time his subject is alive and cooperated with Curtis on this book. Although he may not be a household name any more, Sahl skyrocketed to fame by making pungent observations about the news of the day, long before Jon Stewart or Stephen Colbert came along. His prickly personality caused him more than one headache along the way but his story is compelling and Curtis tells it well.
A LIT FUSE: THE PROVOCATIVE LIFE OF HARLAN ELLISON: AN EXPLORATION WITH EXTENSIVE INTERVIEWS by Nat Segaloff (Nesfa Press)
Harlan Ellison is one of the most fascinating people I’ve ever met. An author, activist, and professional provocateur, he is incapable of being dull, which makes this book a page-turner almost by definition. His fame in the field of science-fiction obscures other facets of his career, including writing for television and movies. It’s all chronicled in this highly readable profile by a longtime friend and follower. No single book could cover the entirety of Ellison’s life, or reproduce every one of his memorable rants, but Segaloff makes a healthy start in that direction.